Strawberry Crest teacher Ryan Haczynski first caught the attention of fellow teachers and public education supporters in 2016 when he sent a list of concerns to Tampa Bay Times reporter Marlene Sokol about the Hillsborough County School Districtís mentoring program.
"Lesson learned," Haczynski laughed. "If you write something to a journalist, it could show up in the paper."
He became one of the public voices advocating against proposed changes for the mentoring program. When he spoke out at a school board meeting, he garnered the interest of more folks, including Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who encouraged him to write opinion pieces for papers across the state.
That seed has now grown into Teacher Voice, a blog and podcast that features people affecting education policy and provides Haczynski with a platform to express his views on his industry and the "politicization of education."
The teacher recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about the state of public education, why he loves teaching and what parents can do to support his colleagues this week, which is Teacher Appreciation Week.
What do you love about teaching?
I think the first thing is just being around kids keeps you young. When I started teaching, of course, I was in touch with the pop culture. I watched Chappelle Show, the kids watched Chappelle Show. Now Iím 42, and theyíll say, "You donít know who Carli B is?" Is that her name?
Cardi B, the hip-hop artist.
See, I donít even know the name. Theyíll say, "You donít know who Cardi B is?" Iím like, "I have no idea." The nature of how culture changes, how life changes ó being in the classroom keeps you plugged into that, and I think it helps me stay young. Thatís definitely one thing I like. More than anything else, I think I fell into teaching because Iím what I call a learnerís learner. To me learning is like a drug. Reading is like a drug. Everybody has an addiction and to me itís books, itís print. I enjoy reading, I enjoy learning. Now that Iím getting older, I think Iím really starting to appreciate Socrates when he said, "I know nothing."
Thereís a recognition and a deepening humility with being a teacher because as you get older ó you felt confident when you were young ó that kind of fades away and hopefully thatís replaced with wisdom. I think ultimately at the end of the day ó besides being around the kids because they keep me young, being a learner and being a good role model as lifelong learner -- the other aspect is Iím a people person. I like being around people. I like talking to people about ideas, issues.
Tell me about this Capstone class youíre teaching in the IB program at Strawberry Crest.
Theory of Knowledge is a very unique course. Unfortunately, itís only offered to IB kids. I wish it was a course that anybody could take. It really teaches the kids how to think critically. Itís not a straight epistemology class. We deal with a lot of current events and issues. Right now, the kids are doing a presentation where they take a real life situation and from that real life situation they extract whatís called a knowledge question. ... It really forces the kids to think for themselves about knowledge. They start to recognize that knowledge is not something thatís static, that it changes over time.
Sounds like itís providing a key piece of education that weíre sometimes told is missing: critical thinking
I would agree. Now that May is upon us, testing season is in full swing. Something that Iíve seen in my career change is just how we went from very few tests to many tests. When I first started teaching, we really had FCAT, and that was it. Now everybody takes SAT at school, PSAT at school, they offer ACT. On top of those national tests, they have all the EOCs (End of Course) and the FSAs. I think itís destroying education if Iím being completely candid. Thereís no time for developing those kind of skills.
The other part of my job is Iím the extended essay coordinator, so I also have to oversee each of these kids writing a 4,000-word research project. When I started teaching, we had kids do research and that has largely disappeared, with the exception of the AP Capstone and IB. They donít have as much time to do that.
What have you learned from doing Teacher Voice and the podcasts?
Iíve learned that unfortunately, education is incredibly political. Perhaps thatís the most disheartening thing about it. My second post ever was called "Unintended Consequences." The post was really about the politicization of education and how I really wished it hadnít become so politicized. To borrow from Atticus Finch, education is the great leveler. Heís talking about the courts, but I think education is that, in some sense. Itís the underpinnning of a strong democracy and being a social studies teacher, thatís important to me. I think everybody deserves a great education, and there are so many barriers that are put in place now: it could be socio-economic status, it could be legislative policy.
You said with all the legislative decisions and low-funding, teachers feel like the profession is under attack. Is that the hardest part of teaching?
Many teachers just get caught in the whirlwind of it all. At the end of the day, all these things that are happening outside of school only detract from our focus, which is the kids, the children in our classrooms, the ones we have to show up for every day. Teaching is not simply giving curriculum. The day after Parkland, for instance, driving to school, I said, "Iím just going to let the kids talk about whatever they want to talk about."
How do teachers maintain morale?
Iím wondering not if, but when ó Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, West Virginia (teacher strikes) ó Iím wondering when Florida will happen. I know that itís illegal to strike because of the 1968 walkout. The FEA has been very silent throughout this whole process. As someone who is involved in the local union, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, I wish we were doing more in terms of building awareness coming into the next election season.
One of the things I thought would be a simple activity would be have everybody wear "red for ed" during teacher appreciation week, and when parents and the community members ask, talk about the low funding. Arizona walked out and their per-pupil funding is $8,140 some odd dollars. Ours this coming year is $7,408, which is also behind inflation by a good $1,200 from a decade ago.
My younger son graduated from college last week with a degree in elementary education. If he was sitting here, what advice would you give him?
Even as few as four or five years ago, I actively encouraged students to become teachers. I do not do so anymore.
It is sad. I would never dissuade someone from the profession all together, but I would say donít teach in Florida, and if youíre going to stay in Florida, do your homework. Make sure youíre going to a place that is fiscally solvent. Pinellas just renewed their "Penny for Pinellas," theyíll be okay. Orange (County) is okay. But the vast majority of school districts are really struggling. How can we be in this booming economy and teachers make so little money here in Florida and elsewhere?
What about beyond the funding?
The positive, idealistic side of me would tell your son, "Just follow your heart and do whatís right by kids. Be a good role model. Be the best person you can be and be authentic." I think thatís a huge thing. I know heís doing elementary, but high school kids, you have to be authentic. Teenagers, they smell fake from a mile away. I just go in there and from Day One, I am a nerdy weirdo. I just tell them buckle up. This is what it is. Kids are attracted to that. Especially teens, they want to look and see an adult who is not afraid to live out loud and be who he or she is. Iím glad your son is going into teaching. We need all the good teachers we can get.
Itís Teacher Appreciation Week. Whatís the best way we can show appreciation?
I would say the best way they could show appreciation, parents especially, if youíre not already volunteering in our schools, start volunteering ó especially in our urban schools. We need all the help we can get. ... This week in particular, with the state of things in the nation, wear red as much as you can for the Red for Ed movement ... and to keep talking about school funding. Itís not even about teacher salaries. Thatís a small part of it, but thatís ultimately generated by the per pupil funding. We need a real investment in public education and people who care about education should be spreading that message, should be encouraging others to vote for pro public education candidates in the upcoming election cycle. More than baked goods or Starbucks gift cards or any of those things like that, the best way they can help teachers is becoming more involved with whatís happening in public education across the state.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @hoop4you.